My mother died yesterday.
The last time I reported on her condition, she was home after having had a stroke and being extremely uncooperative. She did not sleep for a week; she did not eat for a week. I finally took her to the emergency room. It turned out she had pneumonia from aspirating. She was in the hospital for three days, then transferred back to Wellbrooke.
She continued to go down hill. At first, she thrashed and cried, before lapsing into a state that wasn’t quite a coma but wasn’t quite consciousness either. She was peaceful (they were giving her morphine by then).
Four nights in a row, they told me she couldn’t last through the night but she did. I had to smile just a little because my mother was the sweetest little woman in the world but she was also determined as they come. I knew she would die when she was ready, not when anyone else thought she should. I spent hours at Wellbrooke the last week but she died when I wasn’t there.
One of the older nurses said, “some people prefer to die alone – if she goes when you’re not here, you have to believe that was her choice.” That made me feel better.
She had made her own arrangements years ago. She’d willed her body to the Indiana University Medical Center.
“Maybe I can contribute some last little bit of good before I’m gone. How do we expect young doctors to learn if we don’t provide them the resources they need?”
The closer the time came, the more squeamish I became about that decision but I would never have denied her wishes.
I.U. came and picked her up. She wanted no memorial service, nor to have her obituary in the paper. “Anyone who cared about me will know through you.”
So, I came home and it was just over. I am left with mixed emotions. A terrible sadness, of course. She was my best friend and biggest supporter for 67 years. She’s lived with me since 1985. This house is so imprinted with her loves and her personality — dolls and teapots and angels.
On the other hand, I can’t deny a sense of liberation. I retired to take care of her in 2011 and the last few years have been hard. She couldn’t be left alone so my friends had to come and stay if I wanted to go to the store or beauty shop. If she wasn’t home, I was going to the hospital or nursing home two or three times a day. To suddenly have no one to take care of or nothing I have to do is freeing but how to fill that huge empty space where she used to be is something else again.
I think of my mother as the quintessential American. She grew up on a ranch in Arizona where her parents started from scratch to prove up their claim. When Grandpa died, Grandma brought her five kids back to Illinois. She remarried and went to school to become a nurse.
Economic times were tough when Mom was young. She got her first job in a Chinese laundry when she was 14 and gave Grandma all her pay to help feed the family. She still managed to graduate high school. Eventually, she went to work for the Department of Defense and became a quality assurance representative. I can remember her going to work at 2 a.m. in a snowstorm to approve a lot to be shipped so the company could make their payroll.
When she retired, she went to work for Video Plus. She gave as much commitment to that job as she had the DoD. Commitment was her enduring quality — as a mother, a grandmother, a wife, a worker and an American.
Vicki Williams is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached through the newspaper at firstname.lastname@example.org.